A Month in Books: July

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I haven’t had time to read much in the hectic months of June and July, but finally the dust has settled and I can start to get back into it.  I did manage to knock a few down, including some favorites from my childhood and some totally out of my usual genre.

Hillbilly Elegy
by J.D. Vance

I find it easy to sympathize with a lot of marginalized groups in American society, especially immigrants of color, because of my own background.  But I have to admit, one marginalized group I have never really thought about was the American hillbilly.  I guess it has to do with my impression that poor as they may be, they are still privileged, self-entitled, and xenophobic–so what do they care about having an immigrant’s sympathy right?  Admittedly, that view of a hillbilly is based off of some unsavory stories and encounters and is probably not very informed, which is why I jumped on the chance to read this book: please enlighten me.

Vance’s memoir was a really fast read full of anecdotes that paint a harsh yet colorful life growing up in a community of Kentucky hillbilly transplants.  He does a great job at shedding light on some of the problems facing the hillbilly community (broken families, drugs and alcohol, etc), but it was quite confusing trying to figure out what he thinks are the roots of these problems.  He says that hillbillies have lost that hardworking spirit of the older generations and that their poverty has a lot to do with themselves.  Then he seemingly contradicts that by saying that the government is failing them and that they don’t try because they see the system as rigged against them.  Then he ends in a humblebrag about how he’s lucky to have made it out of hillbilly purgatory and on to Yale thanks to a lot of luck in having some good people intervene in his life, but also because he has the qualities of a successful person.

I was intrigued at the beginning in being able to get a glimpse of hillbilly culture from someone who grew in it.  But I ended the book feeling like maybe since he’s made it out of there he doesn’t really have a true finger on what is going on in those communities anymore.  I really want to believe that he is the civilized voice of the American hillbilly, but sadly I think the true voice is a lot less…moderate…than his.

Little House on the Prairie and On The Banks of Plum Creek

by Laura Ingalls Wilder

While looking for books for Ellie at the library recently, I picked up a few of the Little House books in a bout of nostalgia.  Just like when I was a little girl of 9 or 10, I devoured them.  In re-reading these books, I was really quite surprised by how differently I see things now that I have more of a historical context to put the stories in.  While I still love the stories, certain things that went over my head when I was little now give me pause.  Especially disturbing are the really non-PC descriptions of Native Americans and the sentiment expressed by one of the characters that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”  I think ultimately Wilder paints an accurately complicated view of Native Americans: they are portrayed as savage and frightful, but also proud and righteous and very human–especially those Indian babies or “papoose” that Laura was obsessed with!  They threaten the happy little homesteads of the white settlers yet it is undeniably sad that they have to leave what was originally their land.  I can feel her inner struggle in her writing.

That subject aside, her stories are timely reminders for me to whittle down to the bare essentials of a happy life, such as being surrounded by loved ones and being outdoors in nature in my case.  I draw inspiration from the simplicity of her pioneer life.  Even through such harsh conditions and endless obstacles to basic survival, they were able to be cheerful and appreciate the beauty of the prairie.
“Everything was silent, listening to the nightingale’s song.  The bird sang on and on.  The cool wind moved over the prairie and the song was round and clear above the grasses’ whispering.  The sky was like a bowl of light overturned on the flat black land.”
If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler
by Italo Cavino
Despite catchy and cliche title and the expectation of a traditional story, the book caught me by surprise right off the bat.  The author addresses you…or me…directly, in the second person or as The Reader.  He talks to you playfully, intimately, teasingly.  The book is about…you, as The Reader…who picked up a highly anticipated book one day and began reading, but is rudely interrupted by a printing mistake.  You then set off to find the correct copy of the book in order to continue the story.  Throughout the book there are two stories that run parallel to each other: one is that of…you, or The Reader…in your quest to find the continuation of the book that you started, a quest that becomes wilder and more confusing as it goes on.  The other is that of The Story, the one The Reader is trying to track down.  Every new fragment of the book that The Reader manages to track down turns out to another exciting morsel of A Story, but none was part of the original story that The Reader started.
It’s all very meta, very unconventional, confusing and frustrating.  I think the frustration is definitely something the author wanted us to feel, in order to illustrate his point.  Reading is a good story is thrilling and fun, and it’s perfectly fine to read for one’s entertainment, without trying to dissect the book.  A good story that keeps you turning the pages is in itself a worthy read without us needing to attach any prestige from the author’s name or the book’s historical context.  This book is a wild ride and if you like reading fun, non-traditional stories, then this book is definitely worth a try.
Happy reading!

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